ALAN THATCHER, Squash Mad Editor
James Willstrop and Daryl Selby delighted a packed crowd at Lexden Rackets and Fitness Club in Colchester, Essex, with a spellbinding display in an exhibition match full of skills, athleticism and great humour.
It always amazes me how much energy these top pros put into exhibitions like this, but, as James revealed in his after-match interview, they are more than happy to support the grass-roots of the game, especially while responding to such a loud and enthusiastic audience who thoroughly enjoyed four hours of fun and entertainment.
It was a pleasure for me to act as MC. Mike Hegarty, one of the main movers and shakers at Lexden, has supported plenty of my events – and we have even forged a successful partnership in doubles – so it was time I repaid the favour.
The evening began with a stubby racket and a bigger ball, giving spectators the opportunity to see how a club slogger fares when he gets on court to challenge an experienced professional who has been in the upper echelons of the world rankings for much of his squash career.
Five-times national racketball champion Daryl Selby was challenged to a game by Dave Black, known as Blakus, who fancied his chances after winning the Lexden Racketball Championship A Division Plate.
Reaching such dizzying heights of accomplishment obviously boosted Blakus’ confidence, but after several punishing rallies he was trailing by half a dozen points and the court was echoing to the sound of the tin being drilled with alarming regularity. (Note to Blakus, he should try American racquetball, where they don’t have a tin).
Blakus finally nailed a few winners, a combination of mishits, generous set-ups by his opponent and two absolutely blinding shots, to get a highly creditable eight points on the board as Daryl reached his target of 21.
Blakus emerged smiling, and the defibrillator wasn’t needed after all, despite some heavy breathing that accompanied a complexion that matched a meaty Merlot.
Next up, James Willstrop faced a Squash Challenge from promising teenager Seb Birch, who celebrates his 18th birthday next Tuesday and will therefore be able to buy a round for all the clubmates who supported him with cheers echoing round behind the glass back and upstairs on the balcony.
Seb made the mistake of slotting a cheeky crosscourt nick, which produced a menacing sideways glance from his illustrious opponent. Memo to any club player taking on a top pro: Don’t try to embarrass the pro unless you are prepared to visit all four corners of the court in relentless rotation for the next dozen rallies.
Like Blakus, Seb emerged with great credit after some impressive retrieval and plenty of classy shots before also succumbing to a 21-8 scoreline.
Next came the Sorcerer versus The Apprentice, with Lexden Head Coach Paul Allen facing one of his star pupils, former Essex number one junior Aaron Allpress.
It was a high-quality encounter, with Paul having to work hard for his 3-1 victory. It will certainly help his match fitness as he prepares for the World Masters Over-40 Championships at the Boar’s Head club in Charlottesville, USA, where his brother Mark is the UVA Head Coach and also Tournament Director for the World Masters.
Aaron showed plenty of ability, although one attempt at fishing for a stroke in the backhand service box brought the response of “Would you like some chips with that?” from referee Hegarty.
Another referee to shine was Nick Smith, who introduced his own set of experimental rules to the occasion, coupled with some hilarious calls from the balcony as he took charge of the main bout on the under-card featuring Robbie Downer, now based in Nottingham, and Bishop’s Stortford’s Nick Mulvey.
Several spectators formed a queue for autographs behind the show court until they realised the ginger guy was not comedian Josh Widdicombe, and certainly not Ed Sheeran.
There was plenty of comedy on court as both players struck some outrageous shots and richly entertained the crowd before Downer triumphed 13-11, 9-11, 11-7.
Blame me for the match being shortened to best-of-three, owing to the fact that several outsiders gatecrashed the radar gun challenge that took place after the warm-up.
Club member Clayton Hunt, a student at Loughborough, produced more raw power than Aaron Allpress (top speed 129 miles per hour) and coach Allen (top speed 136 mph) when he struck a personal best of 149 mph.
That paved the way for the senior shoot-out between Mulvey and Downer. Mulvey clicked a top speed of 157 mph on his fourth shot out of five, but Downer narrowly edged it with a speed of 158 mph on his second attempt.
As everyone else realigned their shoulders, Downer continued to blast the ball around the court and found plenty of nicks.
When informed that the match had been reduced to best of three, Downer stepped up the pace even more to build a 6-0 lead in the third, only for Mulvey to start clawing his way back into the match, point by point, as Downer began to wobble.
I am not saying that referee Smith was trying his best to help the underdog at this stage of the proceedings, but Downer might think otherwise!
Robbie was relieved to finally clinch match ball at the fifth attempt and spectators were relieved to have the opportunity to moisten their tonsils before returning to their seats for the highlight of the evening.
I’ve seen plenty of hilarious, slapstick exhibitions down the years, but this was certainly one of the best, with some outrageously skilful deception from both players and a new version of playing squash while leaning on the right hand side wall from Daryl.
Unlike the tense nature of a PSA ranking tournament, the professionals are more than happy to take ridiculous risks during an exhibition, which often leads to some equally ridiculous retrieving. Most spectators find it difficult to comprehend the fitness levels of these guys as they chase the ball down and keep it in play, matching one of moment of magic from their opponent with an equally stunning shot of their own.
Daryl took the opening game, but James showed the benefits of maintaining a steady training regime through the summer as he stepped up the pace at will. I wish I had invited him to have a go at the radar gun challenge!
Chatting on court afterwards, James revealed the emotion that came with his Commonwealth Games gold medal in Australia.
He said: “It was very satisfying but also very humbling to receive so many good-luck messages and congratulations. Of course it was special to share those moments with all those people who are close to me, but it was also quite extraordinary to receive so many messages from squash fans back home and people I did not know.”
When I asked him how hot it was on court in Gold Coast, he replied: “It was actually much hotter here tonight at Lexden. Fortunately the Aussies know all about air-conditioning!”
James, an enthusiastic theatre buff and occasional actor, begins the new season as top seed in Nantes, where he is looking forward to trading the boards with the glass court set up inside an historic theatre.
Daryl happily chatted about the phenomenal endeavours of the England football team in the World Cup, but I forgot to ask him if he felt a few more Liverpool players would have helped.
He and James have been England team-mates for almost 20 years since their early junior days, and their friendship, respect and phenomenal skills shone through on a wonderful evening for squash.
Daryl said: “I want to thank everybody for turning up this evening and I want to thank Mike Hegarty for working so hard to put on a great show. He has done some superb things with tournaments in Aberdeen and you guys are lucky to have him here at Lexden.”
The stars even took the time to sign some white Dunlop tournament balls which were drawn for some very happy winners before everyone adjourned to the bar. Not surprisingly, on such a hot night, Lexden recorded record bar takings!
The whole event was streamed live on Facebook, and, at the time of writing, more than 4,000 viewers had logged on to watch. Quality stuff.
Lexden International Squash Exhibition Evening (Thursday July 12):
Racketball Challenge: Daryl Selby 21-8 Dave Black
Squash Challenge: James Willstrop 21-8 Seb Birch
Paul Allen 3-1 Aaron Allpress: 11-6, 5-11, 11-7, 11-3
Robbie Downer 2-1 Nick Mulvey: 13-11, 9-11, 11-7
James Willstrop 3-1 Daryl Selby: 9-11, 11-9, 11-8, 11-8